I set off on this grand road trip rather spur of the moment. I had begun feeling a sense of restlessness spending my days in St. John’s while knowing that the heart of fisheries in Newfoundland was in the outports and had been mentally planning to set off and search out a story of fishing that couldn’t be found in town. So when I saw a flyer for a symposium on the founding of the Fishermen’s Protective Union, that did it: I was off.
While in St. John’s, I had met with representatives from the modern-day fishermen’s union, now called the Food, Fish, and Allied Workers Union (FFAW). Fishers (men and women, here, unlike everywhere else I traveled) in Newfoundland are very well organized and represented, in no small part because of the FFAW. Having organized nearly all the fishers and fish plant workers in the province into a single infrastructure, the union was able to provide representation for the fishing communities, despite their being spread out throughout the province. The FFAW was instrumental in lobbying for the unemployment benefits that sustained whole fishing communities when the cod fishery collapsed, in helping communities keep their local fish processing plants from closing, and procuring representation for fishers in the policy-making process. It had seemed from my initial meetings with people at the FFAW office and from talking with union representatives in some of the outports that the unionization of fisheries workers has been instrumental in sustaining rural fishing communities and preventing the consolidation found in so many other places.
So naturally, I was eager to learn more about the beginnings of fishermen’s unionization in Newfoundland and the history that has shaped the modern fishery in the province. And key to that story is William Coaker and the Fishermen’s Protective Union (FPU) he founded 100 years ago in 1908. The FPU was initially established as a political and social movement to provide independence to fishers as the working class of Newfoundland, their motto of “to each his own” focusing on the need for economic independence. At the time, fishing communities were beholden to the merchants who provided on credit the essential goods they needed to live on and in return for their cured fish at the end of the season. The merchants inflated the prices of the goods they sold and set low prices for the fish such that fishing families were constantly in debt to the local merchant. The FPU’s initial innovation was to create the Fishermen’s Union Trading Company, which bought goods and wholesale prices and shipped them to the outports, where fishermen could buy them at cost. They would also purchase the fishermen’s cured fish at the end of the season, paying them a fair price. This took away the merchants’ monopoly and ability to inflate prices, returning economic control to the fishermen. For a short time, the FPU also expanded into politics, attempting to provide not just economic but also political independence for the province’s fishermen (though at this time, Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada and not technically a province). William Coaker, who remained the driving force of the FPU throughout its early influential years, was elected to the House of Assembly and eventually became Fisheries Minister under the Union Party. This is a bust of Coaker, at the top of a hill overlooking the Port Union harbor.Port Union, where the symposium was held, was the center of the FPU’s efforts, a town actually founded by the union. The union built premises for retail and export in connection with the Trading Company, serving as the hub store for outlets in 40 communities, established a shipbuilding company and built a fleet of supply and trading ships which to transport goods and cured fish, and set up a publishing company for The Fishermen’s Advocate, the Union’s newspaper. The town had its own spur railway line, saltfish and seal plants, a cooperage and carpenter’s shop, a soft drink factory, a warehouse, a woodworking factory, a school, a debating club, a church, a hotel, a large meeting hall, workers’ housing, and even a movie theatre. Port Union also has its own hydropower plant, making it one of the first outport towns in Newfoundland to have electricity. As part of the symposium, a number of older people who had grown up in Port Union and surrounding towns described what it had been like in its early years. They saw the dances held in the meeting hall, the moving pictures shown at the theatre, and the town’s electric lights as the height of sophistication – nearly as exciting as the big city of St. John’s. Here they are speaking, flanked by a picture of William Coaker.Of course, things are very different today than they were in Coaker’s day. The FPU no longer exists, though its legacy of advocating for rural fishing communities’ social and economic independence doubtless helped keep the outport fishing lifestyle from collapsing under economic and social pressure and planted the seeds for the modern-day FFAW. Today, with cod populations still low, it may take new efforts to maintain these communities. During the symposium, a new project for Port Union was announced by Newfoundland Fisheries Minister Loyola Hearn. The government is providing a grant for the Sir William Ford Coaker Heritage Foundation to restore the former retail store and fish plant, to “add to the area’s tourism infrastructure and help attract new business to the community.” Here's what the old fish plant looks like today, on the edge of the harbor at sunset.And new business is already on its way: part of the funding for the restoration will come from Iceberg Water and Vodka, which plant to use part of the building’s interior as a bottling plant for their water and vodka products (which indeed are made by towing real icebergs into the harbor and melting them for their water). The plan is innovative – it will promote tourism by restoring the building and providing tours of Iceberg’s bottling facility, and it will provide short-term jobs in construction and long-term jobs working for Iceberg, in addition to the new jobs from tourism. It’s a far cry from William Coaker’s initial vision for Port Union, but it just might work.